The Cure for Moralism

In the villages of Costa Rica, a man acquired a motorcycle, but had no clue how to operate it. Being a proud villager, he refused to ask for help and was content merely to push that powerful machine from one village to another, never realizing its full potential. He had no idea how it started. He did not understand it, so he did not experience it. And he certainly did not enjoy it. It was a beautiful burden on two wheels. Sad but true story.   


As I talk with believers who seem stuck, I wonder if they are not in a similar position as that man in Costa Rica. Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome to help us understand and experience the full power of the Gospel. I want that for myself, and I want it for the Lord’s church—to enjoy the complete rescue of Jesus. To get un-stuck. 


Before we fully enjoy the rescue of Jesus, we have to reject our own personal salvation efforts, even when those efforts look appealing, seem biblical, and feel Christian. Paul is helping us do that in Romans 2 by confronting the dangers of Moralism.  


But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? Romans 2:17–22


The Cause: What is moralism? Moralism says that God’s love and acceptance are based on our religious identity, social standing, or moral performance. It’s filled with pride and presumption. Moralism says, “We’re the good Christians. We’re the real Christians. We’re the best Christians. We’re the only Christians! We’re really serious about God. We’re devoted. Therefore, God really loves us. We’re his favorites.”  


Paul is confronting the Jews who fell into moralism. They trusted in three false securities: their identity as Jews, their possession of God’s Law, and their covenant sign of circumcision. The word boast appears in this chapter several times. That’s key. 


Paul is cutting their trust out from under them. He’s doing an expose on their religious idols and showing how insufficient, ridiculous, and dangerous they are. Moral and religious props are dangerous. They mislead. They disappoint. They enslave. They destroy. The Jews had misplaced confidence. They thought themself a special race, with special revelation, and a special relationship with God. Of course, that’s all true, but when they trusted in those privileges and grew presumptuous, that’s idolatry. 


How might we fall into the same trap? Do we not have privileges and blessings from God? We have his Word. He know his will. We have answers to life’s most important questions. We can guide others, instruct the foolish, and see the destructive choices those who do not know God are making. We have mastered the Bible.       


Paul is not saying there’s anything wrong with those things. The problem comes when we boast in them, and presume they give us special favor with God. When we make privileges into the grounds of our salvation or assurance, our attitude has grown toxic. 


How can we tell if we have fallen into the trap of moralism? When we rely on something we have done or a group to whom we belong, we’re functional moralist—especially if we disdain others who do not belong to that group or do not match our religious zeal. The Jews not only boasted in their privileges, they looked down on the Gentiles. 


Moralism does not eliminate sin. It’s hides it. It’s powerless to change and transform us. And beyond that, it dishonors God and is off-putting toward others. That’s the next point. 


The Cost: What does moralism cost us? God’s beauty, honor, and glory in the world are at stake. Our moralism makes God look ugly, uninviting, and unapproachable.


You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (vv. 23–24).


Paul quotes Isaiah 52, where God is confronting the godless actions of his people who were trusting in Egypt to escape from Assyria. Their flimsy hopes in Egypt and their failure to trust in Yahweh caused the pagan Gentiles to mock them and ridicule God. 


In what ways are we causing God’s name to be defiled or blasphemed with our moralism? How are we misrepresenting Jesus to a world that is looking for excuses? 


As one man wrote: "A moralist will be smug (I’m good), insecure (my goodness is my righteousness, so don’t question it), judgmental (I must find others worse off than myself to boost my confidence), and anxious (have I done enough though…am I in trouble?)” 


Unbelievers pick up on that, and find it unattractive. In their mind, if believing the message we proclaim about Jesus will make them just like us, count them out! We need to challenge ourselves: Are we living as an advertisement for God, or as a “Keep clear” sign? Do we commend God to the world?


Religious pride makes us insufferable. We’ll drive people away, not only from our churches, but from God. That’s what happened to the Jews in Jesus’ day. They viewed themselves as guides, but were blind and led people away from God toward death.


Not only can we behave this way toward unbelievers. We can behave this way toward believers, who may not share our denominational affiliations, preferences for worship, or convictions on secondary issues like spiritual gifts, the timing of Christ’s return, modes of baptism, the mystery of Communion, and even free will.


Those issues are important, but they take a far backseat to the Gospel. When unbelievers see our division and contention with one another, they mock God. 


Here’s a question: If you were the only representative for Christianity in the world today, what would people think of it—as a belief system? True? Beautiful? Some people may never pick up and consider a Bible, but they’ll read, study, and analyze you.


The Jews were supposed to be a source of light and blessing (think…salt and light) to the nations. Instead, they caused unbelievers to be turned off to God.


The Cure: Paul ends this section by talking about something strange: circumcision. That word means “cut off.” That was the covenant sign for the Jews. It was an indication that they were in a living relationship with God. They had been cleansed. But Paul says their hearts were uncircumcised. It was a terrible insult to call a Jew uncircumcised. 


Circumcised flesh with a cold, indifferent heart is a contradiction. It’s like an adulterer wearing a wedding ring and pretending to be proud of it. Paul is saying the sign without the reality is meaningless. And worse—dangerous. We need inside out religion! 


Circumcision is a cutting off in a very intimate, personal, painful, and bloody way. In Old Testament covenants, slaughter was used as a guarantee for full obedience. People would walk between animals that were cut in half and call down God’s curse if either party violated the terms of the covenant. In other words, if we break covenant, we deserve to be cursed, slaughtered, and cut off completely from life with God.  


Here’s our problem then: Nobody keeps the full terms of God’s covenant. So how can we belong to God? Because the “cutting off” that circumcision pointed to, happened.  


Talking about the Cross to uncircumcised Gentile Christians in Colossae, Paul wrote: “In him [Jesus] you were also circumcised … not … by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ” (2:11). In his death, Jesus was completely cut off. It was bloody. It was painful. It was personal. It was violent. He was forsaken by his Father. He was “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8). He was truly circumcised, bearing the curse and slaughter we deserve for breaking God’s terms of covenant. In him we were circumcised. That’s the miracle of the Gospel. 


When the Spirit works in our hearts, He gives us the Son’s circumcision. That’s good news, because our religious performance won’t help us. Our moralism will deceive and condemn us. But Jesus wants to rescue us. So look up and reach out.